July 14, 2023
Parashat Matot-Masei: Brought to You By the Number 42
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
Parashat Matot-Masei: Brought to You by the Number 42
Rabbi Dan Ross
With this week’s double Torah portion Matot-Masei, we conclude the Book of Numbers. And the second of the two portions Masei begins with a lengthy review of the various journeys our ancestors made in the wilderness on their trek from Egypt to the Promised Land.
It’s dry stuff:
וַיִּסְע֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵרַעְמְסֵ֑ס
“And the Children of Israel set out from Rameses…”
“...and they encamped at Succoth.”
This continues for nearly 50 verses: The Israelites set out from here, and encamped there. They set out from there, and encamped here.
All told, we read that the Children of Israel made 42 stops, a little more than one per year during their 40 years of wandering. Now, what are we to make of this number 42?
It’s not a classic typological number like 40 years of wandering, seven days of creation, or Ten Commandments.
In fact, this number seems so insignificant, that Rashi goes to great lengths to undo it. He worries that 42 stops over 40 years makes God seem cruel. So he takes away 14 here because they happened in the first year before Moses sent out the scouts. And then he takes another eight there because they happened in the late year after Aaron died. And he arrives at only 20 stops over 38 years. Because that’s much better.
Maimonides, on the other hand, points to this passage listing these 42 stops as a paradigmatic example of narratives in the Torah that seem entirely superfluous and unnecessary. So much for 42.
But we know better about the number 42. It’s the number of Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera. It’s the number of kilometers in a marathon. It’s the number of lines per page in the Gutenberg Bible. And for those of us who are fans of Douglas Adams’ classic science fiction novel
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it also happens to be the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
As The Hitchhiker’s Guide tells it, a group of hyper-intelligent super beings, disguised as ordinary mice, build a supercomputer called Deep Thought to answer the “Ultimate Question.” Seven-and-a-half million years later, Deep Thought spits out 42. For years, readers speculated as to the significance of 42.
Proposed explanations included everything from Egyptians Gods to Tibetan monks to binary code. Matot-Masei didn’t make the list. Adams finally put the question to rest in 1993. In an online discussion group for fans, he wrote:
“It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one.… I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought 42 will do. I typed it out. End of story.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Three years ago, fans of the novel celebrated the 42nd anniversary of its release.
References to 42 abound in popular culture. And if you ask Google, Bing, and ChatGPT some variation of the question “What is the answer to everything?” the answer you will get is 42. It’s the revenge of the nerds.
So what does all of this mean? It means that the meaning of a text doesn’t have to be intentional to be significant. Sometimes an author just picks a number. But that also means that meaning is something we can make for ourselves. When we care so deeply about a story, when we believe in its power to transform us, and when we find fellow travelers to share it with us we can make its every word contain worlds.
Which brings us back to Matot-Masei. It’s not exactly correct to say that the number 42 is Jewishly insignificant. The number of lines in a column in your typical Torah scroll: 42. The number of words in the V’ahavta: 42. And according to the Talmud, the most sacred, the most secret, and the most ineffable name of God has, you guessed it, 42 letters.
What does it all mean? What worlds do these words contain?
Rabbi Shefa Gold points to a teaching about Matot-Masei by the Baal Shem Tov.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the collective experiences of our ancestors along each and every one of those 42 individual stops are relived in the individual lives of every Jew. We spiritually follow in our ancestors’ literal footsteps.
Building on this teaching, Rabbi Gold suggests that the Baal Shem Tov’s atomic view of our life’s journey calls upon us to pay attention to each of these 42 stages as they unfold, and to seek the blessing that each one holds for us.
And then, she sneaks up on us with the answer to the Ultimate Question.
She writes, “It is more than a strange coincidence that the secret, unpronounceable name of God…has 42 letters…. Perhaps each letter represents one stage in our journey.”
One step on our way to God.
“Forty-Two Steps to God” is not a great name for a self-help book. But it is the truth. We can’t take shortcuts. We can’t skip seemingly superfluous passages in the Torah. We have to read every word in every one of those columns of 42 lines. We won’t find the meaning of life, the universe, and everything in the calculations of some supercomputer. Rather we are called to make meaning from the stories
that provoke us, inspire us, and bring us together.